Thursday, July 14, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Aix-en-Provence is not the only medieval town with narrow streets, picturesque squares, historic buildings and outdoor cafes in France but it is one of the best. In addition to all that, Aix in the summer becomes a cultural Mecca that draws people from all over the word. From July 5 to 25, it hosts the Aix-en-Provence Festival with a rich array of operas, concerts, recitals and other cultural events that can make you forget (thank God) the shopping that you can do.

This year the Festival offers six operas that cover a wide range of styles and centuries. Chronologically, we start with Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel which was first produced in 1718. The pastoral opera will be performed in its original English at the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean, an outdoor theatre outside Aix.

Still from the 18th century, we get Mozart’s opera seria La Clemenza di Tito (reviewed below) at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, the former residence of the Archbishop in the centre of the city.

From the 19th century we get the reliable and ever-popular La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi done at the same theatre with French opera star Natalie Dessay in the principal role.

A long way from standard fare is Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose (Le Nez), at the Grand Théâtre du Provence. The opera premiered in 1930, in the Soviet Union of Stalin and the political milieu always provides an interesting aspect to everything that Shostakovich composed.

The Festival also features two new works that is has commissioned. The first is Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks To My Eyes. The libretto is by the composer and Joël Pommerat, based on a story by the latter. The other new work is Austerlitz: Eine Kindeheitsreise by Jérôme Combier based on a novel by W.G. Sebald. Both works will be performed at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

Six operas ranging from the 18th to the 21 century in four venues and that’s just the beginning of the rich offerings of this outstanding Festival.

The first opera that I saw was La Clemenza. This is a new production by David McVicar and it is conducted by Sir Colin Davis with the redoubtable London Symphony Orchestra and the highly capable Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

The principal characters of La Clemenza are four men and two women but only two of the roles are sung by male singers. Tito is sung by American tenor Gregory Kunde who replaced John Mark Ainsley and the relatively minor role of Publio, the Commander of the Praetorian Guard, is sung by English bass Darren Jeffrey.

Kunde has a fine voice but I would prefer a more supple tone to handle the flourishes of opera seria. No doubt he would be superb in bel canto operas, but he is not my ideal interpreter of Tito. Jeffrey handled the heavy Publio with ease and was a delight to listen to.

The four other roles were handled by high voices, sopranos and mezzos. This is a leftover from the days of castrati and leaves me less than thrilled but convention and authorial dictates must be respected.

The driving force of the opera and the most interesting character is Vitellia. She is the daughter of a former emperor and she is full of hatred and vengeance. She wants the clement Tito assassinated and she has the ability to convince his own friends to do it. Do not tangle with this babe! The role makes serious vocal demands and a wide range of emotions from ferocity to manipulation to remorse and repentance. The job is undertaken by Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio. She has the vocal range but she fell a bit short in the acting department. I think Vitellia should display ferocity where Giannattasio showed anger and the emotional depth needs to be more profound. Still a superb performance.

English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly wore pants for the role of Sesto, Tito’s great friend and Vitellia’s hapless victim. He betrays Tito and does everything wrong but in the end he sees the light presumably by accepting his friend’s forgiveness but indicating that he will never forgive himself for his treachery. An excellent performance by Connolly.

English mezzo-soprano Anna Stephany did a fine job in the role of Annio, as did soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloud as Servilia.

McVicar has a rather dark view of La Clemenza. I saw his production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum a few years ago and the impression that the set gave me was that of prison fortifications or jail cells. He has lightened up a bit for this production but the dark hues are still there, Except for Tito and Servilia everybody wears forbidding dark costumes set sometime in the 18th century. There are a couple of columns and statues to suggest Rome.

One of the statues is seen centre-stage, draped in black during the overture. It is removed when the action begins and returns at the end; the drape is removed and we see its head in bloody red. Tito may be a wonderful man who forgives his enemies but the end will be bloody no matter what. It is not a terribly imaginative production but it does the job.

The end for opera-goers in Aix comes around 12:30 in the morning. The performance in the open-air l’Archevêché, starts at 9:30, when darkness arrives. In Aix, somehow time stops to matter at least for three weeks every summer.


La Clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on July 7 and will be performed six times until July 21, 2011 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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